Greenwashing is a term used to describe the implementation of superficial green practices solely for PR reasons by a company that has no genuine interest in the wellbeing of the environment or in conservation. It originated from the supposed environmentally conscious request that hotels made to their guests to reuse bath towels as a way to conserve water and energy. True, cutting down on washes is better for the environment, but hotel chains were promoting themselves as being environmentally friendly when in fact this was the lone “green” policy that management had put in place – one that would save the company money.


So how can we spot corporate greenwashing? With the recent rise in awareness towards environmental issues, many companies are adopting green policies. But are they truly going green or are they just greenwashing? Here are a few tips on how to identify corporate greenwashing versus genuine environmental consciousness.



Writing Checks

Look out for companies that simply throw cash towards a charity or initiative – these companies are usually looking for a quick PR boost. For instance, a company might write a check to The Sierra Club Foundation or purchase some carbon offsets as the main tenet of their sustainability strategy. Of course, the Sierra Club is a reputable organization and, with its A+ rating from CharityWatch, any individual or business wanting to donate money towards a worthy environmental charity should consider the Sierra Club. But when businesses simply throw a few dollars towards a cause without doing much else, that’s a sign of greenwashing. So take a look at the company’s environmental platform. Is it doing a lot of boasting about the checks it signed or is the organization undertaking other environmental measures that require some effort?





Long-term Thinking and Alignment

Undertaking green initiatives requires a long-term approach. As mentioned above, true corporate sustainability is marked by more than just check signing. It involves discipline, action, and oftentimes investment. For instance, a mining corporation that is trying to reduce its water usage will collect, visualize, and analyze data on water consumption and work to reduce usage levels year-over-year. It may invest in water-saving equipment and find ways to reuse water safely without affecting production quality.


Water drop


But what about other areas of the business? If the company has a short-term way of thinking about other important elements of its business, that may be a sign of non-genuine environmentalism. For example, the mining company that aims to reduce its water usage may also have little concern for product stewardship or worker safety. In such cases, a lack of alignment could be a sign of greenwashing. The company might have selected one environmental concern to champion (water usage) but has no regard for other equally important areas of sustainable business. True corporate environmentalism requires real alignment.


Sustainability Reporting

Compiling data for a sustainability report requires a number of resources. If a company puts the time, money, and effort into writing a comprehensive sustainability report that follows the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) guidelines, it’s a sign of genuine environmental consciousness. Organizations that are guilty of greenwashing are less likely to be transparent to the granular level that the GRI dictates and therefore less likely to release sustainability reports detailing their sustainability roadmap and progress. Check out Cisco’s 2013 Corporate Social Responsibility Report for an example of a first-rate sustainability reporting.


Cisco CSR 2013



Do you have any other tips for spotting greenwashing? Let us know through Twitter @NapkinBetaBeyond or on our Facebook page.


Photo credit: Melissa Goldstein/Flickr; Gaz Haywood/Flickr